Friday, December 15, 2006

A Whispering Soul: June 24, 2005 - November 6, 2006

Just a quick note to thank everyone who has been reading A Whispering Soul over the course of the past year and a half. I have really enjoyed the blogging experience, and especially all of the wonderful people I have gotten to know through this medium. Partly due to time constraints and partly due to being uncomfortable with where to draw the public/private line (I felt like it was getting too personal and revealing - not from an anonymity point of view, but from a privacy point of view - which is also why the archives are gone) and partly in order to devote more of my writing energy to a novel-in-progress, I have decided to lay this blog to rest. A Whispering Soul effectively ended with my post of November 6, 2006. I had planned to just go off quietly into the night, as Jack has always said he would do if he stopped blogging, but some very kind e-mails expressing concern prompted this one final post. I am doing well and will always be writing, and definitely welcome e-mails from those who would like to stay in touch. Once blogger beta gets its kinks worked out, I may start up a non-public blog, which I will let regular readers and friends know about. Thanks again for reading my blog and making it the positive experience it has been.

Hope everyone has a beautiful Chanukah/holiday season....


Sunday, September 10, 2006

Attack Of The Killer Mosquitoes

Some people are allergic to peanut butter, others to chocolate (the poor souls), some to both. Mainly, they need to respectivey avoid peanuts, cocoa, and Reeces Pieces, and they should be fine. I think most allergies are like that - you avoid what you are allergic to, and are none the worse for wear.

It ain't like that for me.

Lucky guy that I am, I am allergic to mosquito bites. Not only do mosquitoes adore my blood, leaving me with bites which swell up to gargantuan proportions, but they are mobile. Short of staying indoors all summer, there is little I can do to avoid them. I can be with a group of 10 friends and come away the only one bitten - it's like the evil little things know I am allergic and sadistically gang up and go after me. Insect repellent, clothes - nothing stops them...

So, naturally, since I don't have enough hobbies already (ha!), I decided that the height of mosquito season was the time to try my hand at farming and growing my own vegetables and herbs. As tomatoes and basil together is one of my definitions of heaven on earth, I figured I would start with them for my first planting attempt. The basil was easy enough - you buy a plant, stick it in the ground, water it some, and watch it grow. But for the tomatoes, I thought I would be a pioneer and start them from seeds. I bought the pack of seeds, planted them indoors, and, contrary to what I expected, most all of them took! I ended up with 62 tomato plants - and they were fast growing suckers!

Now, aside from the challenge of finding enough room outside to plant 62 tomato plants at least 2 feet apart from each other, there was the issue of digging holes deep enough for the stems to be planted up to their highest leaves (which allows the stem to grow additional roots, better to anchor the plant as it becomes heavy with fruit), sometimes over a foot deep. It was a lot of work, but I was careful to do only a few at a time, so as not to attract too much mosquito love. Each time I planted, I noticed three or four mosquito bites, doused myself with ineffective anti-itch spray, and waited out the swelling.

As the tomato plants grow (and they can grow to 4 or 5 feet, I am told), they need to be staked, to keep the fruit from touching the ground. So, this past Thursday, I spent a few hours staking the tomato plants. I did not realize how long I would be out there, but I tried to protect myself as best I could from the mosquitoes. If I were Muslim and a woman (or
Michael Jackson), I could have worn a burka or an abaya. But as I am not, I did what I could short of walking around in a tent or a bubble - I sprayed myself with insect repellent, wore long sleeves and a hat.

Moment by moment, I would hear another one of the unmistakeable buzzing noises mosquitoes make just before the kill. I hate that sound! I immediately jumped after each buzz to try and avoid the bite, but it is always too late. I walked inside Thursday night and counted 37 distinct mosquito bites all over my body (the one day record for me was 50-something one time after hiking in northern Israel).

The swelling was almost instantaneous. I looked like something out of a zombie movie. It was difficult to fall asleep because of the itching, and the uncomfortability of the hardening bites. Once I did fall asleep, I slept for fourteen hours straight, missed my shabbat plans (was to have gone to New Square with my friend H), woke up drenched in sweat with a headache, stomach pain, and feeling weak. What sucked the most is that this does not even count as one of my
twice yearly getting sick times....

Thank God, the swelling is already going down, and I am feeling much better. The plants are growing nicely, I am anticipating a fall season full of good tomato/basil eating, and, though I know it's Elul, and I am generally anti-violence, I am already plotting my 'skeeter

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

And What Did You Bring?

I believe very strongly in giving credit where credit is due. And the fact is, we all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Justin Timberlake. Justin's new single, SexyBack, which can be heard on his myspace page, for those of you with a hankering for ear punishment, is one of the worst singles to come out so far this year (only slightly ahead of Fergie's London Bridge for that honor). In it, Mr. Timberlake boasts "I'm bringing sexy back." Apparently sexy went missing, and no one but Justin was able to bring it back. That's right. Were it not for Justin, all of us would have remained sexyless, many of us without even knowing it.

So what if the song is a mess of muffled distorted vocals, lack of melody, inane and repetitive lyrics and a beat ripped off from Britney Spears's I'm A Slave 4U and recent Nelly Furtado? The man brought sexy back! Singlehandedly. Sure, Jonas Salk invented a vaccine for polio, the Wright Brothers discovered flight and Ronald Reagan popularized jelly beans, but were any of them able to bring sexy back, let alone sexyback? No! Did any of them even think to attempt to bring sexy back? Therein lies the genius of Justin.

No longer just the standard-bearer for pre-fabricated inoffensive bubblegum boy band pop, or one of the notorious participants in Nipplegate at the 2004 Superbowl, or Britney's ex, Justin Timberlake will now forever be known as the man who, in an act of pure selflessness, with no concern for musicality whatsoever, brought sexy back for us all.

It makes whatever else the rest of us might ever do pale in comparison. Can you imagine being at a party with Justin Timberlake now?

Justin: So what did you bring to the party?
You: I brought cheese and muffins. And you?
Justin: Oh, I brought sexy back.
You: You did?!!? Where did it go?
Justin: I don't know, but I brought it back.
You (looking down forlornly at your cheese and muffins): Wow. You brought back something extinct!
Justin: Nice muffins.

Next, I am hoping Justin is willing to work his magic again and bring back some other extinct things:

The Dodo Bird
Woolly Mammoths
Receding hairlines
A safe world

How bout it, JT?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Still Center Of A Restless Mind

Can't sleep. I tried giving in to dreams, then reading, then a drink of water, and now finally, reluctantly, A Whispering Soul. There is too much quiet. Not the comforting quiet of lights closed in a warm house at night, but the unsettling quiet of a restless, searching mind.

I had a wonderful weekend with 'laizer, savior of souls, in from the Holy Land; shabbat and muffins and gourmet meals with the Muffin Dude and his family in Boston; an impromptu meeting with Kenju, who it turns out lives next door to the Muffin Dude; dinner with a Rav who exudes emes; hitbodedut by a Connecticut river, complete with dancing and mosquito bites; Torah to make your heart ache for more Torah and for Israel; and Chassidic stories of such delicacy and beauty, that they demanded moments of deep reflection and savoring.

And yet, four days later, there is this unsettling quiet. Nothing is amiss. No downward spiral of regret and despair, only an aching stillness. I suppose I am tired. Tired of waiting - for my zivug, for real life to begin. I am wistful for Eretz Yisrael, the vibrant purple flesh of a freshly cut pitaya in the shuk, the winding alleyways of mystery in Nachlaot, faces of friends I have not seen in years now, negotiations in sherut/taxi cabs, the cold stone of the kotel as I press my cheek against it, running through tall grass in the Galil, the one extending rock in Bat Ayin you can see forever from.

Where is the voice telling me my wife is out there, the one telling me that my children are waiting patiently to be born, the one telling me that there is a place for me, that my role, my contribution, my story is yet to emerge, and that when it does it will be true and clear and brilliantly defeaning in its rightness? Where is the voice, my voice, telling me Jerusalem is still there for me?

It is that kind of quiet.

The quiet between knowing where you are not - both literally and figuratively - and accepting it. It is the quiet of being single and being far away from your makom; the quiet of unreached potential and thwarted artistry; the quiet of Torah yet unfound; the quiet of a cry originating deep within the soul, recognizable only by its brokenness.

A beautiful teaching from a Rav met in Boston: The only thing a Jew has to keep him from being alone in this world is shabbos. HaShem sometimes plays hard to get, hides Himself from view. But shabbos? Every seven days guaranteed.

In reading this entry back, it feels permeated by sadness, but that is not reflective of my present frame of mind, at least not in the Smashing Pumpkins sense. It is the good kind of wistfulness, the kind that creates movement and flow. And there is great joy and peace in being able to name the aching stillness: it is loneliness and longing - for her (my zivug) and for her (Jerusalem) and for her (Torah) and for realizations yet to come.

And with peace, sleep...

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What Happens To A Dream Deferred

As I was sitting in front of my computer working on a business writing project for hire, wishing I could be doing something more creative, I thought back to my childhood, and how great it was to be four. My entire world then was playing, running, drawing, and imagining. My parents were infallible, and I couldn't wait to turn 5, so I could be big, and go to school like my older brother.

School, as it turned out, was overrated. All of a sudden, playtime had parameters, work was expected, conformity was the norm, and creativity was stamped out. After the first day of kindergarten, I had had about enough, and recall asking if I really had to go back. In retrospect, I think I would have been a perfect candidate for home or Montessori schooling.

Of course, I went back. For the next 12 years I went back, though not as often as one might expect. I graduated high school with the record of being the second most absent student in my grade. If it weren't for LF and his juvenile delinquent ways, I would have been number one! What's funny, though, is that I was a pretty good kid, all things considered. I just was not good at conforming - nor at subjects which held little interest for me, as it turned out. For the most part, I hated biology and did only passably well; genetics fascinated me, however, and I aced every test. It was that way with every subject but English and Art, which I always excelled at - if the topic discussed piqued my interest, I was in, and if not, I was off in dreamland.

It wasn't until college, and even more so graduate school, that I really enjoyed school, really grew to love academia - I'm sure in part due to being able to choose my schedule, and in part because I could take mostly classes that I enjoyed and was interested in. I took studio art and literature classes, track and drama, film and writing and Judaic Studies and foreign languages. It was bliss (well, except for Blake and Melville and whatever we had to read in Old English, but we won't talk about that). I went to readings and plays, and was part of a writer's group, and was encouraged by my professors to transfer to the School of Visual Arts.

Reality hit about a year out of school - none of the things I was interested in were valued in the real world in their pure form - unless you were very fortunate or a dead white European male from the 16th-19th centuries, in which case you appreciated and were appreciated more with the passing years. The trajectory is kind of bizarre - you begin as a child encouraged to be creative and free, only to have that stifled in elementary and high school, only to have it rekindled in college and grad school, only to have it squashed again by the working world.

As some of you may recall, I have this recurring nightmare of becoming an accountant (with no offense to the fine upstanding accountants and accountants to be out there, especially Ezzie). Though it would mean a nice upswing in my financial status, it is not in any immediate danger of happening, nightmares notwithstanding. You can't be something you're not. But it is equally hard not being something you are.

They say you should look to your passions as a child to find your calling. When I was in second grade, the teacher asked us to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote about being a chef. At other times during childhood, I remember wanting to be an artist, a writer, a runner, a rabbi, a husband and father, a doctor, an astronaut and a firefighter. The last two fell out of favor along the way to adulthood, and I am much too squeamish to be a doctor, but the others have never left their places in my dreams.

Were I living out my childhood passions, I would spend most of my days writing novels and short stories and literary non-fiction; I would create funky artwork and lamps and furniture to sell at fairs on Sundays; I would be a gourmet chef and create recipes and write cookbooks; I would teach chassidut; I would be a healer; I would run marathons and I would be raising a rambunctious brood of kids with a wonderful wife and companion.

It's true I do/have done some of these things - some in quiet ways. Some I have worked hard to reach, some I have even seen a bit of success with, others are but a flirtation, and some I let float out there just beyond grasp. What happens to dreams deferred? They stay dreams, until they become real.

What were your dreams as a child? And where do they show up in your life today?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Oscar Nomination Predictions

As a pop culture junkie and lover of fine films, I have been predicting who will be nominated for the Oscars for at least 12 years now. It is kind of funny, I guess, that I do this, seeing as how I have only seen a handful of films in the last six years (part of a religious conflict I may blog about later). I don't care who wins, and I won't be watching the Awards telecast, but I enjoy predicting who will be nominated. The combination of political machinations, precursor mentions, cultural zeitgeist, and past Oscar history make predicting the Oscars a challenge I find fun and interesting. I have a pretty good track record, and though there are always a few surprises among the nominees, I can usually get at least 30 out of 40 in the top 8 categories.

Nominees are announced this coming Tuesday. My predictions for this year:

Best Picture:
It seems to me that there are three films which are pretty sure bets at this point: Brokeback Mountain, Crash, and Good Night And Good Luck. Brokeback has hit a cultural nerve, and has been winning almost every award it has been nominated for; Crash is an "issues" film with large guild (and Oprah!) support, and Good Night takes on Hollywood history (in the form of Joseph McCarthy) and is directed by an actor, two of the Academy's favorite things. For the remaining two slots, eight films have a chance: Capote, Cinderella Man, The Constant Gardener, A History Of Violence, Match Point, Munich, Pride And Prejudice and Walk The Line. Match Point is considered Woody Allen's comeback film, but has not generated much love among those in Hollywood ; Cinderella Man is widely seen as a flop; A History Of Violence may be a bit too violent for the Academy, and its director, David Cronenberg, is pretty outside the mainstream; Pride And Prejudice has to compete with the memory of the superior BBC adaptation and the Jane Austen wave that hit Hollywood a decade ago - a little too much been there done that. We are left, then, with Capote, The Constant Gardener, Munich and Walk The Line - two of the four are certain to be among the best picture nominees. But which two? Capote has received rave reviews and boasts a central performance which some have called the performance of the year. Might be too small a film to gain much notice here, though; The Constant Gardener is more of a genre film than most Academy fare, but it is not unheard of for a genre nominee to be in the mix; Munich is viewed as a cold film and has been met with controversy since its release - the Academy generally likes to avoid such controversy, but they may want to show Spielberg some support; Walk The Line is talked of more for the performances of its leads than for the film itself and it seems to be more liked than loved within the industry. Also against it is that it is a music bio picture only a year after Ray was nominated for best picture. The main point in its favor is that it is a hit with the public and has just passed the $100 million mark at the box office. There is usually one hit film in the mix. I am going to go with Capote and Walk The Line, but look for The Constant Gardener to surprise.

Final picks:
Brokeback Mountain
Good Night And Good Luck
Walk The Line

6th place: Munich
Surprise nominee: The Constant Gardener

Best Actor:
Three men seem to be sure bets here: Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote(the role of his career), Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (the kind of performance that changes careers) and Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line (winner of a Golden Globe, does his own singing, Johnny Cash love, strong performance). Competing for the remaining two slots are Eric Bana in Munich, Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man, Jeff Daniels in The Squid And The Whale, Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener, Terrence Howard in Hustle And Flow, Cillian Murphy in Breakfast On Pluto, and David Straithairn in Good Night And Good Luck. Bana's fortunes fell once the controversy surrounding Munich erupted; Murphy is in a small film with a transgender theme - with Hoffman and Ledger in the mix, he has no chance; Daniels and Straithairn are both veteran character actors giving career best performances. The difference, however, is that Daniels is in a small film in a role that some might consider supporting. Straithairn has the advantage of dominating in a film which is almost certain to be nominated for best picture. The only drawback is that his role is not showy, and as a character actor, he will not be seen as "owed" a slot here. Terrence Howard has had a breakout year, and it is a possibility he will receive more than one nomination (also in supporting actor). It is a strong year for actors, however, and his role as a pimp is not one the Academy traditionally embraces. Ralph Fiennes and Russell Crowe each have the advantage of being former nominees who have not been nominated in a while (Crowe's last came in 2001, for A Beautiful Mind, and Fiennes way back in 1996 for The English Patient). The Academy tends not to fill up catgegories with only newcomers, and of the three locks, only Phoenix has been nominated before, albeit in supporting, for 2000's Gladiator. Crowe has been out of favor with the Academy since several violent outbursts have made headlines, and his film is viewed as a flop; Fiennes has been overshadowed by his co-star, Rachel Weisz, in the awards precursors, and has made some bad career choices in between The English Patient and The Constant Gardener. I am going with Straithairn and Howard, but Fiennes could very well surprise, and knock either of them out.

Final picks:
Phillip Seymour Hoffman - Capote
Terrence Howard - Hustle And Flow
Heath Ledger - Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix - Walk The Line
David Straithairn - Good Night And Good Luck

6th place: Russell Crowe - Cinderella Man
Surprise nominee: Ralph Fiennes - The Constant Gardener

Best Actress:
Another weak year for lead actresses - will Hollywood ever go back to writing strong roles for women again? The locks here are Reese Witherspoon in Walk The Line (they have been waiting for years to nominate her. This is her first real serious, adult role), Judi Dench in Mrs. Henderson Presents (all she has to do is sneeze and they nominate her) and Felicity Huffman in Transamerica (generally good reviews and deglamorized performances always get the Academy's attention). In contention for the remaining two slots are Joan Allen in The Upside Of Anger, Maria Bello in A History Of Violence, Q'Orianka Kilcher in The New World, Keira Knightley in Pride And Prejudice, Laura Linney in The Squid And The Whale, Charlize Theron in North Country, Naomi Watts in King Kong and Ziyi Zhang in Memoirs Of A Geisha. Watts and Kilcher are pretty much also-rans, the former because her film is a remake and a genre film, and the latter because she is a newcomer in a meditative film with less dialogue than beautiful camera work; Bello and Linney will fall victim to vote splitting due to category confusion - are they leads or supporting players? That leaves Allen, Knightley, Theron and Zhang for the final two slots. Theron stars in a movie which tanked at the box office, but the role is clasic Oscar bait - working class woman takes on big business and wins (a la Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich); Knightley received great reviews for Pride And Prejudice, but she is only 20 and has not yet paid her dues. This is her first role in which she has actually had to act; Allen's film came out at the beginning of the year. Though Oscar has a very short memory, they are kindest to early releases in this category. Plus her film was one of the first screeners sent out to Academy members, she is well-respected, and has the former nominee thing (last nominated in 2000 for The Contender) on her side. Age, however, is against her. The Academy likes to go young in this category. If Allen is nominated along with Dench and Huffman, it will be the first time since 1992 that three actresses over 40 made it into the 5 actress slots; Zhang's film was trashed by critics, and her performance was not among her most memorable. In her favor: the film did decently at the box office and, in a decade when the Academy suddenly realized that not everyone is white, she is an Asian in a category where no Asian has ever been nominated in the entire 76 year history of the awards. I'm thinking they will go with Theron and Zhang, but Allen could very well replace Zhang in a surprise.

Final picks:
Judi Dench - Mrs. Henderson Presents
Felicity Huffman - Transamerica
Charlize Theron - North Country
Reese Witherspoon - Walk The Line
Ziyi Zhang - Memoirs Of A Geisha

6th place: Keira Knightley - Pride And Prejudice
Surprise nominee: Joan Allen - The Upside Of Anger

Best Supporting Actor:
A category which is usually very competitive is surprisingly thin this year. Sure things are George Clooney in Syriana (weight gain for a role, and current Hollywood golden boy - he will likely receive three nominations this year!), Paul Giamatti in Cinderella Man (after being snubbed two years running for American Splendor in 2003, and more so for Sideways last year, they will make it up to him with a supporting nod here), and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain(though he is clearly a co-lead in the film, the Academy will get swept up in Brokeback fever and go along with the category fraud). The remaining two slots are pretty wide open. Possibilities include Clifton Collins Jr. in Capote, Bob Hoskins in Mrs. Henderson Presents, William Hurt in A History Of Violence, Frank Langella in Good Night And Good Luck, Donald Sutherland in Pride And Prejudice and three of the men from Crash: Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, and Terrence Howard. Sutherland and Langella are respected veterans who have never been nominated. All of the attention for their films, however, have gone to Keira Knightley and David Straithairn, respectively; Hoskins is in a similar boat (though he was nominated back in 1986 for Mona Lisa) - most of the attention for Mrs. Henderson has gone to Judi Dench. I don't think any of the three have the momentum to make it in; Collins does not have a "name" and is in a small film; That leaves William Hurt and the three guys from Crash for the remaining two slots. Hurt's turn is considered a comeback of sorts for a man who had a three year Academy run back in the 80s, scoring back to back to back nominations for Kiss Of The Spider Woman (for which he won), Children Of A Lesser God, and Broadcast News from 1985-1987. His performance in
Violence is more of a cameo than a supporting role, however, and the film may have a tough time with the Academy in general; Matt Dillon has been on screens for the past 25 years, and this is only the second time he has been in the running for a nomination (he was last talked about for Oscar back in 1989 for Drugstore Cowboy). His is the standout performance in Crash; I think he is in. It's a toss up between Howard and Cheadle, with Cheadle having the familiarity (nominated last year for best actor for Hotel Rwanda), but Howard having the breakout year. Edge to Howard. I am going with Dillon and Howard for the last two slots. If there is a surprise, look for it to be Hurt.

Final picks:
George Clooney - Syriana
Matt Dillon - Crash
Paul Giamatti - Cinderella Man
Jake Gyllenhaal - Brokeback Mountain
Terrence Howard - Crash

6th place: Don Cheadle - Crash
Surprise nominee:William Hurt - A History Of Violence

Best Supporting Actress:
In a very competitive category, Michelle Williams in Brokeback Mountain and Rachel Weisz in The Constant Gardener are the only sure bets, both playing suffering wives, which aside from prostitutes, is the role the Academy goes for more than any other in this category. Fighting it out for the remaining three slots are Amy Adams in Junebug, Maria Bello in A History Of Violence, Li Gong in Memoirs Of A Geisha, Scarlett Johansson in Match Point, Catherine Keener in Capote, Laura Linney in The Squid And The Whale, Shirley MacLaine in In Her Shoes, Frances McDormand in North Country, and Thandie Newton in Crash. A case could be made for any of them to get in, and I would not be especially surprised by any combination of those listed above. That said, I think Linney and Bello will fall victim to category confusion (though Bello has a better shot than Linney, as she was snubbed two years ago for The Cooler); Gong is the preeminent Asian actress of her generation, but her film tanked, and there is too much competition in this category; MacLaine's film did not do well at the box office, and the "let's nominate them for their career" rather than the performance itself type thinking has grown out of favor in the last few years; Johansson was snubbed in a big way in 2003 when she did not receive a nomination for Lost In Translation. Her Match Point role is her most mature to date, but one gets the sense the Academy just doesn't like her much; That leaves Adams, Keener, McDormand and Newton. McDormand starred in a film which tanked at the box office, and her performance was not reviewed as anything special. However, she is a three time nominee (for Mississippi Burning in 1988, Fargo in 1996 (which she won) and Almost Famous in 2000), well-liked and respected, and has figured prominently in many of the precursors; Keener was nominated once before (for Being John Malkovich in 1999) and has had a banner year, with roles in The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Interpreter and The Ballad Of Jack and Rose in addition to Capote; Adams has the advantage of a quirky and loved performance in a small film. This is the category where quirky and small are good things; Newton would not be much of a factor, but I think Crash may have a bigger impact at the Awards than people are expecting. I am going to go with Keener and McDormand for their name recognition and solid performances and Adams for her quirky turn. If there is a whole lot of unexpected Crash love, look for Newton to sneak in instead of Adams or McDormand (which I have a nagging suspicion may happen).

Final picks:
Amy Adams - Junebug
Catherine Keener - Capote
Frances McDormand - North Country
Rachel Weisz - The Constant Gardener
Michelle Williams - Brokeback Mountain

6th place: Maria Bello - A History Of Violence
Surprise nominee: Thandie Newton - Crash

Best Director:
In one of those odd scenarios it is difficult to explain, best picture and best director never line up exactly. There is always at least one which does not match up. This year, Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain and George Clooney for Good Night And Good Luck will match up with their films. The other three slots are up for grabs. Those in contention are: Woody Allen for Match Point, David Cronenberg for A History Of Violence, Paul Haggis for Crash, Michael Haneke for Cache, Peter Jackson for King Kong, Fernando Meirelles for The Constant Gardener, James Mangold for Walk The Line, Bennett Miller for Capote, and Steven Spielberg for Munich. With his film receiving only lukewarm support, Mangold seems an obvious candidate to leave out; Allen is more likely to make an appearance in the writing category than here (although he has been known to surprise); Haneke has been compared to Hitchcock, but his film did not get much play in the U.S. before ballots were due; I think it's too soon for Jackson to make an appearance here so soon after the Rings films, especially with a popcorn film; any of the remaining five have a legitimate shot. Though he has a distinguished career of interesting films, Cronenberg is outside the mainstream; Miller is an entirely new voice and his film may not have the momentum to push him in here; Crash seems to have a groundswell of support, so I think Haggis gets in; this may be where the Academy shows support for Spielberg - it is a well-directed film, in spite of the controversy surrounding it; Meirelles got a surprise director nomination in 2003 with City Of God. He is quickly becoming a director of note, and his work on The Constant Gardener was widely praised. I am going to go with Haggis, Spielberg and Meirelles for the last 3 slots, though I could see Miller or Cronenberg making it as well. Tough category.

Final picks:
George Clooney -Good Night And Good Luck
Paul Haggis - Crash
Ang Lee - Brokeback Mountain
Fernando Meirelles - The Constant Gardener
Steven Spielberg - Munich

6th place: Bennett Miller - Capote
Surprise nominee: David Cronenberg - A History Of Violence

Best Original Screenplay:
This one seems almost too easy. Crash, Good Night And Good Luck, The Squid And The Whale, and Match Point all look good to go. Crash and Good Night are sure best picture nominees, and well-written, Squid is a writer's film if ever there was one, and Allen is writing royalty with the most nominations for any writer ever at the Awards, with 13 (last nominated in 1997 for Deconstructing Harry). Possibilities for the final slot: Cache, Cinderella Man, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Hustle And Flow, Junebug, The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, Mrs. Henderson Presents, and Syriana. The Academy often rewards foreign films which are not eligible for the foreign langauge category with a nod in the writing categories, but Cache does not have the impact of an Y Tu Mama Tambien or City Of God; Three Burials was a labour of love for Tommy Lee Jones, but he did not write the film, so there is no feeling of throwing him a bone here; Hustle And Flow is too edgy and Mrs Henderson too frothy and Junebug too small; That leaves Syriana, Cinderella Man and The 40 Year Old Virgin. Syriana is topical, but may suffer from category confusion. Submitted as an adapted screenplay, the Academy ruled that it was original (!); Cinderella Man was a flop, but Akiva Goldsman is an Oscar veteran; The 40 Year Old Virgin is not typical Academy material, but this is the category that saw a nomination for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, so anything is possible. I am going with Syriana, but look for The 40 Year Old Virgin to surprise.

Final Picks:
Woody Allen - Match Point
Noah Baumbach - The Squid And The Whale
George Clooney & Grant Heslov - Good Night And Good Luck
Stephen Gaghan - Syriana
Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco - Crash

6th place: Akiva Goldsman & Cliff Hollingsworth - Cinderella Man
Surprise nominee: Judd Apatow & Steve Carell - The 40 Year Old Virgin

Best Adapted Screenplay:
With the lack of originality in Hollywood, it is unusual to have more contenders for original screenplay than adapted, but such is the case. The sure bets are Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and The Constant Gardener. For the remaining spots, it will be two of the following: A History Of Violence, Memoirs Of A Geisha, Munich, Pride And Prejudice, Shopgirl and Walk The Line. Geisha is not seen as a success. It will do well in the technical categories, but not here; Shopgirl is too slight; neither Pride And Prejudice nor Walk The Line are being talked about for their screenplays; Eric Roth wrote Forrest Gump and Tony Kushner is a Pulitzer prize winning playwright - that is probably enough to get them in for Munich; with stellar reviews, Violence is bound to be shown some love somewhere - Olson has been acknowledged for successfuly turning a graphic comic into an effective drama. I am going with Munich and A History Of Violence for the last two slots.

Final picks:
Jeffrey Caine - The Constant Gardener
Dan Futterman - Capote
Tony Kushner & Eric Roth - Munich
Larry McMurty & Diana Ossana - Brokeback Mountain
Josh Olson - A History Of Violence

6th place: Gill Dennis & James Mangold - Walk The Line
Surprise nominee: Deborah Moggach - Pride And Prejudice

Check back on Tuesday to see how I did! Who do you think will be nominated?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Don't It Make My Red Hair Brown

Nice little old blue-haired lady: "You have such beautiful red hair!"
6 Year Old Me: "My hair is brown!"
Nice little old blue-haired lady turns to my mother, who nods vigorously up and down and sighs, "It's brown." Nice little old blue-haired lady thinks we are both nuts and walks away confused.

This scene played itself out more times than I can recall (substitute any number of other people for nice little old blue-haired lady) throughout my childhood. I had beautiful red hair. And I was in denial. Who wanted to be a redhead? Ronald McDonald was a redhead, Raggedy Anne and Andy were redheads, Pippi Longstocking was a redhead, and that obnoxious kid on The Partridge Family reruns, Danny Bonnaducci. But not people I knew. Not any Jewish people outside my own family.

Certainly as a kid, with my red hair, blue eyes and milky white skin, I felt somehow less Jewish than all the curly black-haired, dark-eyed kids around me. As one of only three redheads (one of whom was my brother) in my entire elementary school, I was an anomaly. It was my otherness within the larger otherness of being a Jew. Some insisted that I must be Irish or Scottish. Who ever heard of a Jew with red hair (and blue eyes, no less)?

That neither my parents (both jet black!) nor grandparents had red hair did not help matters. Where did it come from? Techinically, there was one great-grandparent on either side who had red hair, and which, skipping over two generations, came through in two of my siblings and myself. But try telling that to me as a child. Maybe I was Irish or Scottish - or fictional!

Later, of course, I would meet a number of other redheaded Jews (and many more who had red beards, at least - the men, that is) and I would learn that red hair plays a prominent role in Jewish tradition, from Eisav through King David to Moshiach (not to be confused with Moshiak), who I have heard numerous times will also supposedly be a redhead. That red hair is associated with anger and bloodthirst (think Eisav or Erik the Viking marauder, or even King David, who found ways to channel his rage) and passion did not do much to make me feel better about my hair color, though (I have that fire, too, but it takes a lot to bring it out. A good friend with twin rambunctious redheaded 2 1/2 year olds confided that he is holding on to me as his hope that his children can grow up to be calm and mellow even as redheads).

I don't know exactly at what point I stopped insisting that my hair was actually brown, but it probably coincided with my first being called "gingi," which I was not particularly fond of, but as it was invariably an Israeli who would employ the term, at least it was inclusive - of course I am a Jew! I'm a gingi! When in Israel, even to Israelis who knew my name, my red hair took over my identity. I was not MC, but "gingi blondini," as my shade of red veers toward reddish-blonde, especially in the sun.

Easy to burn and freckle as a child, I was rarely allowed in the sun unless I was covered from head to toe with gobs of sunscreen and wore a hat - not exactly redhead love inducing. As a teenager, I would try to tan anyway, always to be disappointed by - and in pain from - my red and peeling skin.

It was not until I was im my mid-teens - when fitting in was not as crucial and it felt good and right to be an individual - that I not only became comfortable with having red hair, but grew to appreciate its uniqueness. Apparently, only 2-3% of the U.S. population are redheads, and within a century redheads worldwide may be extinct (start the save the redheads campaign now!).

I am especially wistful about my "brown-haired" redheaded days now, as just a month ago a lone white hair showed up in my trimmed beard. I have checked every few days since then for more, but it sits there all by itself. I'm sure no one else would even notice it. I have not decided yet whether to pull it out or leave it. I am in my early thirties and I am not worried that my beard and hair will turn white overnight, but will it be 10 years, 20, 30 or 40 before my hair is a mix of red and white or even all white?

It was startling to me how this status of other I had held on to for half my life is just a question of pigmentation, and how short a time it may last. I picture myself at 85, and a young child will approach me and tell me how beautiful my white hair is. I wonder if I will respond, "It's red!" and I wonder who will be there to nod and sigh.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Conclusions Leave You Breathless: The Aliyah Dilemma

The following began life as a blog post, was reworked for an article in a magazine, and now, in light of (good) questions posed by Jameel, Treppenwitz and various real-time friends who have the privilege and merit to make Eretz Yisrael home -most specifically, "why have you not made aliyah?" - has been reworked again slightly to answer that question. I look forward to the discussion it will hopefully provoke....I would appreciate thoughts and comments. Thanks.

Each year since coming back from Israel, I look at the Nefesh B'Nefesh website, feel a pang of heartache watching the videos of families making aliyah, grow antsy when yet another friend takes the plunge, and then...I do nothing.

The issues for me are many, but I can narrow them down at essence to three: singlehood (I am adamant about not making aliyah as a single person - as wonderful as Eretz Yisrael is and as many friends as I have there, once I left yeshiva, all of a sudden I was alone and lonely in a foreign country, and most of the anglo women at my level of religious comfort tend to leave post-seminary if they do not marry, and I would like to marry an anglo), financial viability (I do not need to be rich, but I do not want to have to wonder where my food will come from each month. I have been told to come to Israel with at least $20,000 saved, which I do not have; I do not have a career which is considered viable in Israel and I am not willing to be miserable by becoming an accountant in order to be there, nor do I have parents who are willing to supplement my income every month if I am there (nor do I think they should)). The third - and most compelling - issue for me is family.

I envy
those whose parents are supportive of their making aliyah (mine are not), or who have the ability to recognize the greater good of what they are building for the future, and are able to weigh that against parental anguish(I am not).

Though my parents support Israel politically and in charitable giving, Israel was never part of our family lexicon. There were no yearly trips there, no marching in the Israeli Day Parade, no recognition of it as the place for Jews. It has become a part of lore that my parents are the only ones the Israel counselor at my day school was unable to budge when it came to sending their kids on a post-high school year, for fear we would end up wanting to live in such a far-away place. My parents have never been to Israel (my mother has a fear of flying); I was, in fact, the first person in my family to visit Israel in 3 generations. So it did not come as a surprise when they were upset by my recent three year stay there.

My parents cannot bear the thought of not seeing their children on at least a semi-regular basis - and I do understand where they are coming from. Parents raise their children with the expectation that they will always be a part of their lives. After all the love, sleepless nights, financial
output, do they not deserve to see their children and grandchildren more than twice a year? Do they not deserve the comfort of knowing that their children are nearby to help them and take care of them in their old age? Shouldn't they be able to reap the joy of being at brisim and watching baby's first steps, instead of receiving e-mail updates and a round of pictures every month? I want these things for them too...I have heard from a number of older friends whose parents have passed on that if they had realized how much their making aliyah had hurt their parents, they may never have done it. I have other, younger, friends living there who refuse to think about it, because of the pain it engenders in their own hearts, let alone in the hearts of their parents. It is so much easier, once you are there, to block out other voices a world away.

My parents live for their kids. We are the most important thing in their lives. Is it worth my parents' heartache and sadness to be in Eretz Yisrael?

The counter-argument is rather simple and straightforward: It's Israel. The Jewish homeland. It's where we belong. If we don't make the move, who will? Someone has to be first. You have to think about what is best for you, and for future generations - in terms of Torah, environment, education, connection to the land and to our heritage.

But even discounting all of that for a moment, there is still the feeling when I am there - the
feeling of belonging, of community, of being alive, of walking the same land my ancestors walked. Israel penetrates your bones, seeps into your soul. I don't have such feelings for any other place on this earth (certainly not NY, which I have made no secret of my distaste for). I have been to many beautiful places- Boulder, Berkeley, the coast of Maine, Amsterdam, Brussels, Rome - and a few communitues that I like very much, such as Baltimore, but none of them pull at me or have taken up space in my head and my heart and my soul like Israel has. I love it despite its backward third world ways, rude taxi drivers, and anti-pedestrian mindset.

How can you give up the chance to be in the land we were promised, the land we fought so hard for? Living there affords the opportunity on any give day to wake up and daven at the kotel, visit the kever of the Ari and ma'arat hamachpelah; to celebrate the chagim en masse with Jews from all over the world, to live a simpler, more spiritually-based life - are these opportunities to throw away? They say there is no Torah learning like the Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael - the kedusha is extraordinarily present there, in the trees, in the air, in the soil. And I want that, with such a longing, I want that for myself, for my future wife, for my children (be"H). I want that for my parents too...

I realize that much of this is based on how they were raised. It is a New York phenomenon. If
you grew up in the five boroughs in my parents' generation, moving away means Long Island or Teaneck at the furthest. There is no need to go anywhere else. It is not like Denver or even Los Angeles, where until very recently, if you were Jewish and even marginally observant, it was a given that at some point you'd be sending your child to the east coast or to Yerushalayim, if only to expand the prospective dating pool. My parents and their circle stayed in NY, just as their parents and their grandparents did. But why should I be bound by their choice?

My grandfather has suggested a compromise, such as moving to Baltimore or California, which would at least get me out of New York. But what room is there for compromise when it is not distance I am after, but Israel itself, and when it is not Israel per se my parents take issue with, but the very concept of physical distance? I come from a long line of stubborn people. I don't know how this will be resolved. The one certainty, though, makes me quite sad - no matter what I choose, the Israel issue is going to make one (or both) of us miserable...

It breaks my heart that I am not in Israel. I think about it every single day - literally. But for me to make aliyah, at least at this point, would require me to be married, have a viable career for Israel, and have the ability to make frequent trips to the states to see my family, or live 4 months of the year in the states. Impossible? I suppose not. But all easier said than done...

For now, the best I can hope for is that I will encourage my own children (if I am blessed to have any) to make aliyah, and join them when I am able to retire, though it makes me sigh even just to write seems so far off....

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

How To Be A Slightly Poetic Modern Chassidic Orthodox Jewish Writer

Live in New York, where Jews can be Jews without Judaism. Question, but know when to accept. Be idealistic to a fault. Daven your way - in your own words, in silence. Meet angels in your dreams. Linger near the waters and rocks. Write before sunrise and after sunset. Welcome solitude and laughter. Love films by unafiliated Jews - Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble In Paradise and The Smiling Lieutenant; early to mid-Woody. Hide your kippah under a cap. Be impulsive. Revel in the rain. See truth and beauty in havdallah and lit candles. Find your place in your family. Absorb trivial details. Believe in souls. Watch from the sidelines. Live your fictions. Trust in Chassidic joy. Announce you are an artist to convince yourself. Get lost between the pages. Work in light and shadow. Overanalyze. Sculpt in clay, and wood and glass and food. Wherever you are, be in Jerusalem always. Sing a niggun. Aim for Malamud and Singer and Ishiguro; ignore them all. Save what matters. Note the leaves. Drink in the innocence of toddlers. Hurt easily. Find your kavannah. Move with the clouds. Dance for the moon. Acknowledge your difference. Listen to photographs. Take long walks on tree-lined paths. Make time for hitbodedut. Champion the uninvited. Write stories around lines and curves. Struggle with the burdens of your people. Give up. Start again. Miss friends. Answer to all your names. Languish in the serenity of shabbat. Admit when you are wrong. Re-create your life. Avoid television - not for religious reasons, for peace of mind. Feel yourself fading. Hold fierce to independence. Believe in possibilities still. Write what you know. Feel guilty about it. Expand time. Avoid centers and edges. Swirl with music in the air. Chart something. Wear gray in a sea of black. Search for the impossible. Be reserved and free. Dream. Dream. Dream. Disdain hypocrisy. Keep Torah with you. Remember to breathe. Be drawn to the mystical. Recoil and return. Crave closeness and depth. Avoid definition. Believe in hashgacha pratis. Let "Lecha Dodi" and "Ani Ma'amin" touch you. Smile wide and often. Laugh fully. Acknowledge kindness. Trace the seven strap marks tefillin has made on your arm. Search for precedents. Know your worth. Derive pleasure from the wind in a night sky. Be a Jew. Wish to be a Jew you can be comfortable with.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Why, it's Christmas music! All the time! Everywhere! And (in the hopes that this will somehow pass as fulfilling the I confess meme I was tagged with by Daled Amos) I confess that I have a weak spot for it. No, not the `barump ba bum bum, yay Jesus!' variety of Christmas music, but the less overtly religious, more innocuous "Winter Wonderland", "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" type Christmas music (well, ok, and "Silent Night")- the kind that is not only marked by fine musicianship and songwriting, but which genuinely makes you feel good.

I wish it were great Chanukah songs I heard everywhere this time of year. But guess what? There are none. But so many of the most successful recording artists of all time have been Jewish, you protest! Bob Dylan? Nothing. Barbra Streisand? Neil Diamond? Barry Manilow? Harry Connick Jr.? We have Christmas albums from each, but nary a note on Chanukah. Two of the great songwriters of our time, Paul Simon and Carole King have recorded Christmas songs as well.

And they are in good company. It was a Jew, Irving Berlin, after all, who wrote "White Christmas," perhaps the most well-known of all modern-day Christmas songs. Jews also wrote "Let It Snow" (Sammy Cahn) and "Santa Baby" (Joan Javits), among other songs considered holiday classics.

It is not as if we have been completely bereft of Chanukah songs: Kenny G, paradigm of all that is bland, found no room for a Chanukah track on his 2002 holiday album Wishes, but he did include "The Chanukah Song" on his 1994 holiday album Miracles, and another, "Eternal Light (A Chanukah Song)" on his 1999 otherwise all-Christmas CD, Faith. Just between you and me, though, how do we know these are really Chanukah songs? They are instrumentals...

I was so excited when the Chanukah compilation Festival Of Lights came out a number of years back, only to find the biggest featured names to be Jane Siberry and Marc Cohn (who I always thought was not Jewish (thanks to Stacey for the correction!) - the latter contributing a great version of "Maoz Tsur/Rock Of Ages") - with the added highlight of famed cantor Yosele Rosenblatt singing kiddush backed by a Balinese dance beat. Festival Of Lights 2, from 1999, upped the ante, featuring They Might Be Giants singing the original "Feast Of Lights".

On the parody side, the makers of South Park offered the offensive but funny "A Lonely Jew On Christmas" and "Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel" on Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics album, joined this year by Sarah Silverman's "Give The Jew Girl Toys", and the truly embarrassing "Chanukah's Da Bomb"by Chutzpah. And of course, there is the one Chanukah song radio will play, now in three versions, Adam Sandler's "The Hanukkah Song", which cleverly rhymes funnaka, marijuanica and gin and tonnica with hannukah. Not exactly poetry. I'm not convinced it's actually even music, either. Sure, it was fun the first time I heard it, but now...

The Barenaked Ladies, of "One Week" fame, offered three Chanukah songs on their Barenaked for the Holidays CD - "Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah", "I Have A Little Dreidel" and the original "Hanukkah Blessings". None are particularly good, but if you want them, they have been repackaged as the stand-alone three track EP, Barenaked for Hanukka, available on I-Tunes.

The OC, the TV show which introduced the world to Chrismukkah, has released a holiday album called A Very Merry Chrismukkah, which is oddly made up of all Christmas songs save for Ben Kweller's tepid version of "Rock Of Ages".

Aside from one-offs by under the radar indie bands like Another Man Down's "The Dreidel Song" and Shudder To Think's "Al HaNisim" on different holiday compilations and oddities such as Peter Paul & Mary's "Hayo Haya", an ode to the Maccabees, that's pretty much all there has been on the Chanukah front.

What's a "Winter Wonderland", "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", "Father Chritsmas", "Jingle Bell Rock" loving Jewish boy to do?

Fortunately, a change is in the air. With Matisyahu singing about HaShem appearing on MTV right after Madonna's video for "Hung Up", his album Live At Stubbs at 126 on the album charts and climbing, and his single "King Without A Crown" just 10 chart positions from entering the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart (it has already reached #14 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart), I would say the time is ripe for Jewish artists to embrace Chanukah on record.

Do you hear what I hear?

Why, it's the LeeVees! Fronted by members of Guster and the Zambonis - not exactly household names, but both are up-and-coming - the LeeVees offer a full-length Chanukah album, Hanukkah Rocks. And the good news is it does rock, with not a single dud among the tracks. With a style that comes across as the love child of Aimee Mann and They Might Be Giants, all of the tracks are fun, tongue-in-cheek guitar-laden odes to the holiday Jewish musicians seem to have forgotten.

"Latke Clan" is a classic-in-the making. Other tracks include: "Applesauce vs. Sour Cream", "Goyim Friends", "At The Timeshare", "How Do You Spell Channukkahh?", "Kugel", "Jewish Girls (At The Matzoh Ball)", "Gelt Melts" and "Nun Gimmel Shin Heh".

You can hear the entire album for free here . Just click past all the Christmas CDs until you get to Hanukkah Rocks. Then turn off your radio stations playing Christmas songs all day long, sit back, and enjoy....not up to par with "Winter Wonderland"? Maybe not, but it's a good start....

Chanukah Sameach!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Who By Birth: The Girl Who Never Fully Was

There was a picture taken when she was delivered, but we did not see it; the gravemarker at her tiny plot says only "baby," followed by our family name. Instead of being surrounded by family, she lies in a section of the cemetary surrounded by other stillborns, and babies who lived for less than a week.

Our rabbi gave her a name, a name of comfort, given to many stillborns, but not allowed to be placed on the tombstone.

I remember very clearly the day my mother left pregnant and came home empty. That emptiness stretched for months, even years. When she went into labor, the baby had already died inside her. She knew it, and still she had to push.

I don't know how to think of the baby - literally. I sometimes wonder who she'd be, how her presence would have changed our family dynamic, how we would be eight children instead of seven, even numbered. Yet there is nothing from which to create or to build upon. She would have to be fully imagined, like a character in a novel or film. Only she is not fixed as any one thing, any one entity. There is no history, no memory, no good or bad. In that way, she is free, unencumbered.

Yesterday, she would have been 15. She was to have been the bridge between my 20 year old brother and my 12 year old sister, connecting the 80s to the 90s. And instead there is a gap. Eight years. Again, there is eight. Seven is shabbat, the days of the week, the days of creation. Seven is this world, but eight - eight is beyond this world. The number is disquietingly fitting for someone who never fully entered this world, who existed, who breathed, only in a womb, as a series of weak heartbeats and feeble kicks.

I have visited her grave, pulled out the stray weeds among the carefully arranged rock bed laid down by my parents to keep weeds at bay and to differentiate her grave from the other little ones no one seems to remember. I would like to acknowledge her in some way, but she is so intangible. I can't feel sad or miss her because I never saw or knew her. How do you mourn someone who never fully was, who never had the chance to be?

We do not speak of her in my family; we let the day of her stillbirth pass by without a word. Yet, she has an undeniable weight and presence. She is a heavy emptiness, a void that cannot be touched. She has come to represent for me all unfulfilled potential, all that is ephemeral, nameless, faceless, both the fear and the comfort of what is unknowable.

In Rabbinic literature, it is written that a stillbirth occurs when a soul only needs the mother's womb to achieve perfection. And so to my perfect sister who never fully was, I hope your soul is at peace. I don't know how to remember you, but I haven't forgotten you.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Make An Ugly Woman Your Wife

Jimmy Soul had a number one hit on the Billboard charts in 1963 singing the advice "if you wanna be happy for the rest of your life, make an ugly woman your wife." After the last woman who I was madly attracted to turned out to be more than a little psychotic, Mr. Soul's words sound quite sagacious. The reality, however, is that I don't know anyone who specifically sets out to find a spouse they find unattractive, and I question how happy it might actually make them. I know many, though, who take the extreme opposite route, placing a premium on attractiveness. If a woman is not a size 2 and supermodel gorgeous, many guys will not even give them the time of day. And it is not just the guys. I have met plenty of women who will settle for nothing less than the chiseled, broad-shouldered, over six foot man of their dreams who is rich to boot!

While I am not holding out for a supermodel, I also have fallen prey to placing importance on beauty - and I am troubled by it. I wonder how many great women I have turned down after a date or two - or even before getting to that stage - because I did not find them pretty. Yes, I have also ended things because a woman was not warm, or because she was rude or materialistic, but those are personality traits. I know that beauty fades, it is not constant, and it is purely external, having nothing to do with a person's intrinsic worth.

Yes, attraction has to be there, and attraction for me is not just based on physical attributes, and no, I am not seriously advocating marrying someone one is not attracted to, but it bothers me how great a role the physical plays in my thoughts. Why does it have to be this way? Is it strictly western society's influence? Have we been conditioned to expect everyone to look like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt? Do Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt even really look like the images of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt that we are presented with? When more of marriage is about who's going to get the milk at the grocery store than satiating lust, why is physical beauty so high on the list of essential traits in a spouse for so many of us?

Perhaps it needs to be the initial draw, because genuine love based on giving and mutual respect only develops later, after being there for each other and working together to build something - a relationship, a home, a life together. And just practically, for desire to be there, and to look at each other day in day out, there must be attraction. But how much is enough? What do we hold out for? How do we measure?

I can't quantify it personally, except to say I know it is more important to marry someone who will be a good spouse and a good parent to your children together, and who shares similar values in life. I would rather have those things and marry someone who I am somewhat attracted to than to not have them and be with someone I am madly attracted to - and yet, attraction does have to be there. I do not care about impressing my guy friends. I do not care if everyone else thinks my wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. What I do want, though, is to be able to tell my wife I think she is beautiful and mean it - because she deserves that.

For those of you who are married, what was the one trait that figured most prominently in drawing you to your spouse? How important was the attractiveness factor before marriage and now after marriage? And for those of you who are single, to what degree have physical attributes played a role in your dating choices and in what you are looking for in a spouse? I very curiously await your thoughts...